JJB meets Sean Long

First published in Rugby League World, Issue 390 (Oct 2013)

Jamie Jones-Buchanan sits down with one of Rugby League’s biggest characters to talk about his new career.

It has bothered me for quite a while that I have never interviewed a coach despite having wanted to for a long time. I guess we perceive coaches as the school teacher/dad type generation who ask the questions of us, and not the other way around. I think that far eastern mentality of never questioning your superiors somehow kept me away from exploring that unique perspective.
Following his recent appointment at Featherstone, there was an opportunity to interview the playing legend Sean Long who over the last couple of years has embarked on the next chapter of his Rugby League career in coaching.
To add more meat to the personality I knew on the field, I decided to flick through his autobiography “Longy” and get myself an insight into arguably the most colourful character of the modern game. With the intention of reading a couple of chapters I finished up reading every word inside of about five hours.
It was the fastest book I had ever read mainly due to the fact that I couldn’t put it down. It reminded me of the spinning psychotropic tunnel scene in the Willy Wonka film, possibly because I spent much of the time rolling round on the floor laughing but its more likely that the fine line between genius and madman portrayed in Willa Wonka’s character is inherent in Sean Long. Paradoxically I wonder if he’s possibly too mad to realise his genius.
His book finishes during his time at Hull FC with a great little story about a female FC fan reprimanding Longy for donning the colours of Hull KR in the form of a red and white bandanna he was wearing after a game in Catalan. Since that story, Sean has made a quiet transition from playing to coaching, which even for the best prepared, is never an easy thing to do so.
“I found the transition from playing to coaching really difficult to be fair,” he explained. “It was obviously the end of my career and I got some bad injuries, that’s what made me think that I had to retire. It wasn’t because I couldn’t do it, but every time I played a game I was picking up injuries and I thought I’m 34, I’ve had a good career I think it’s time to knock it on the head.
“I found the transition difficult because having played rugby from seven years old and leaving school at 15, that’s all I ever did – play rugby.  I had always been told what to do, where to be and your life is structured for.
“Luckily for me Matt Parish gave me an opportunity to coach at Salford so I knew I had that, but still. From then on there’s not the same structure in your life as what there is when your playing, where you’re told to come in at eight o’clock, do your rehab’, eat this and do that – it’s drilled into you.
“Going into the big wide world is quite difficult but I found it okay going into the coaching, it took me about 12 months to get into it.
“In my playing days, playing on a weekend was my release. I trained all week and at the weekend I would get to rip into a tackle and have all that energy and aggression go out of me.
“You settle and relax and get ready for the game before you go ‘bang’ and get involved in the collisions. I struggled with not having that so I played a bit of part-time and played rugby union at Preston Grasshoppers. I signed part-time there, was coaching during the day then training Tuesday and Thursday nights before playing on a Saturday morning just to get my rugby fix, it’s like a drug. I was ok doing that getting up the next day and loving the feeling of being sore.”

On-field boss

A lot of players in my experience do a little bit of kids coaching or go back to their amateur clubs to give something back whilst understanding that one day coaching might be the alternative way of applying their trade once the body is too old to play.
Whilst I am sure that Longy was also keen to give back it seems that much of his coaching experience came as a result of being the “on field general” during his playing days at St Helens. That doesn’t surprise me in a way because whilst Saints have been consistently the best opposition over the course of my career, their side never seemed to change too dramatically over the course of that time.
Whilst I imagine each coach would have come in and put their own slant on the game, the nucleus of the Saints players remained the same and so did their identity and strengths. This suggests to me that throughout the reign of several coaches, the Saints players, to a degree, would have almost coached themselves with years of deliberate practice on the field, galvanised with a true cohesive relationships off it.
In his book, it seems both the volume of time those players spent with each other, along with the “natural” team bonding they had, perhaps explains why Saints were the most fluid and synaptic team of the last decade.
“I had never been the brightest academically at school, but I knew I was pretty smart on the field getting the guys round the park and the coaches like Ian Millward, Daniel Anderson and Mick Potter always said I would be a good coach so I had the feedback from them,” he said.
“Even though I was a bit wild in my early days, just by being a general on the field I knew the next transition would be going into coaching. Sometimes the coach would give me information then I would go on the field and be the ‘on-field coach’ as a halfback, and I delivered the game plan that he had told us to do. If they went away from that I would have to give them a bit of a roasting and be his on-field coach.
“We kept the nucleus of the Saints team together, the nine, six and seven plus a few forwards, and added a few quality imports like (Jamie) Lyon and (Matt) Gidley – who where the icing on the cake.
“We kept the young British lads together and got Leon Pryce. We had a good team – the coaches would add a little bit onto it, but we knew how we wanted to play all the time. We liked to play quick and play ad-lib and although it looked a bit frantic and too ad-lib at times, we knew each other and how we each played. If Keiron jumped out left I knew he would come back right because that was his favourite side of running so I knew to hit a line on that side. Although we were off-the-cuff, it worked.
“We all complimented one another and if one guy had an off day another guys would make it up and it all worked.  We all took bits from our coaches and took that along the way. Ellery was a motivator who would get you up for a game and make you feel safe, Daniel Anderson was big on defence and (Ian) Millward was into attacking lines. Mick (Potter) came in and added a bit but the strength was behind keeping the same team.
“I didn’t do any coaching back in the amateur game; to be fair I came into it a little bit blind, all the coaching I did was with the group of players I was playing for.  At Saints and at Hull, I would take the halves or the backs and tell them which lines to run so I picked it up real quick.
“Being together as a team, getting on the training field, practicing, learning from your mistakes, being together as a unit and being genuine mates, helps both on and off the field. If you’re going for a coffee or a feed, you’re actually with the lads that you’re playing with and you get to know each other. If you’re going for a beer after the game they all stick together, so there’s no need for manufactured team building. What we had was true – we were genuine mates.
“When you have been together for such a long time like you boys at Leeds, you spend most of your time together and you will do anything for them. You don’t mind busting a gut for them because you know he has your back as well.”

Getting away with murder

Longy was known for being a character in his playing days (having read his book the word I might use is straight barmy), and I think would admit to being a handful at times for some of his coaches. For the emotionally intelligent ones though they would understand that the flair off the field is directly related to the flare on it, and I completely agree with Sean when he says there is a fine line between madness and genius.
But now the shoe is on the other foot, I couldn’t help wander how Sean Long the coach would have dealt with Sean Long the player, and if the flexibility shown to him would help him to deal with players individually down the line.
“I think the game has changed now,” he answered. “When I was playing you could get away with murder, but it’s a lot more professional nowadays. It’s all recovery and ice baths, and looking after yourself for the next game, but don’t get me wrong there’s a time and a place for a drink.
“Back then it wasn’t as professional so you did get away with a bit more. If I do see something in one of my own players I wouldn’t let them get away with murder because it reflects on the rest of the team so you have to handle each situation a bit different.
“You can tell which type of characters are a bit loose, you can speak to them and be their mate and see where they’re coming from. They might have problems off the field and because I have been there, I can relate to them real well.
“I think that you have to speak to and treat people differently – we’re not all of the same mould and were not robots. If we were, it would be a boring game – you have got to have players that are a little bit wacky.
“Some of the players will level with you, some of the best ones are borderline insane, they’re on the edge, like being on a tight rope they’re balanced between going this way or that way. You just need to manage them and put an arm around them.
“They might even need people to help manage their life and tell them they’re doing this and that, making it very structured for them.  They might even need help with what they’re doing with their money, ensuring some of their paycheck goes into their savings, otherwise they wont understand and they will blow it all.
“They need the same amount of rules though because you cant just let one get away with everything but they might need handling differently personality wise. That’s one of the things I try to do when I am coaching, try to give the lads a bit of advice.”
Whilst overhearing me in the gym talking to one of my teammates about interviewing Longy, Joel Moon came running over with a big smile on his face. He had first hand experience of working under him and was highly complimentary of Sean’s time at Salford before they both chose to move on.
Salford, with both a Super League status and deep adversity, must have been a real baptism into the world of coaching where I imagine there would have been a wealth of learning opportunities. I did wonder though, given the chunky lifeline thrown to them by Marwan Koukash, why Sean decided to move given their fresh prospects.

Eye opener

Even more interesting to me, was how the coaching role at Wigan came about – being Longy’s hometown it had all the marks of a romantic return of the prodigal son. Unfortunately that’s an area he couldn’t get into but I get the feeling it could be an interesting topic in his next book.
“Coming from a really top club like St Helens and Hull you have great facilities that are very professional, then you go to Salford who weren’t as professional as the other two. I found it fairly eye opening to be fair for a first coaching gig but I got the players playing for me.
“When I am coaching I don’t like saying ‘this is the game plan, now go and do this’, I will watch them and see what are strengths are. If they’re not the biggest team I cant just tell them to go through the middle, because we wouldn’t have the tools, but we might say ‘we are quite skilful’ so lets use the ball. I will do the plan to what I have.
“We threw the ball around at Salford and used it to our advantage, we played some good footy and I learnt a lot. I learnt from my mistakes too, that some things you try don’t work so it’s back to the drawing board and go again.
“It was an eye opener. A lot of people said if you can get through that first 18 months coaching you can get through anything.
“We had been through that much turmoil at Salford over the winter and pre season and at one point we were days from going under. We didn’t know what was happening, lads were coming in and we where having regular crisis meetings. For us it was like ‘look lads its out of our hands all we can do is ‘keep coming in, working hard and training’. To be fair the boys were great and then because I didn’t know if my job was safe I heard that Wigan were interested in signing me, they must have thought I had done a decent job.
“Koukash came in but then I thought the opportunity to coach at one of the top four clubs in the comp would benefit my progression as a coach.
“It wasn’t anything to do with politics or me not liking it at Salford, I just thought for me to progress my career, if another team came in I could take a step back to come forward. That’s what I thought I would do but it didn’t work out that way.
“There was no arguments with Salford, I left on good terms, I handed my notice in and then worked my notice. I told them I had an offer from Wigan and asked them what they wanted me to do and they asked me to keep working for the next five or six weeks, so that’s what I did.
“I’m still learning, I’m coaching but I don’t know everything. Some lads might ask me a question and I wont know the answer but I will go away, find out the answer and get back to him. I’m not saying I know everything and I am pinching ideas from everywhere – League, union you name it I pinch ideas left right and centre.
“I’ll ring Keiron Cunningham, Nathan Brown, Richard Agar, people who I have been friends with for years. There has been plenty of times when I have been struggling with a nine and I’ll ring Kes (Cunningham) and he will say ‘you have to get him scanning before you get to the play-the-ball’.
“It’s mad really because I have finished playing and all the players or coaches that I am speaking to are those who I have played with like Chris Chester, Cunningham, Francis Cummins – they’re all my age so we are all kind of a new breed.      “Half of you guys who have been at Leeds will finish playing and go into coaching and that will be another generation coming through.”

Coaching goals

The thing I loved most about reading Sean’s book where the stories of his childhood in 1980s Wigan, collecting birds eggs and poaching with his dad. I’m not as concerned with what people have done, as I am why they have done it. As far as a richness of experience goes, in childhood Longy seems to have done it all but the one thing that stands out are his trips to Wembley, the impression it had on him and how a dream of one day winning the Lance Todd trophy manifested itself into being the first player ever to win it three times.
Now that chapter is over, I wanted to know what the coaching chapter of his story will be, what his aspirations were in the next ten to 15 years, particularly having just being handed the helm at Featherstone.
“I have stupid goals me,” he responded. “In my head I have long term goals – maybe a ten year plan. I honestly think that I would want to coach my country, so whether it’s working up to that to become the next England coach, or working in Australia. I would like to become one of the best coaches in the comp.
“I had high standards as a player and I have high standards as a coach. Whether I can do that only time will tell but they’re my goals – to become head coach in the Championship, then maybe assistant at Super League, then maybe go to Australia and maybe come back and coach my country.
“Obviously everyone says it would be great to go and coach St Helens, and I know a lot of Saints fans would like to see that but it’s a different path now, that was my playing career. I would like to coach Super League and maybe win the comp or win the Challenge Cup. That would be the icing on the cake.
“Luckily I came to Featherstone with six games to go and then play-offs. As we have a good run in the play-offs and win the Grand Final, that’s my short-term aspirations for me and for Featherstone. The next few weeks will be massive, for me but also Featherstone so it works both ways. In a few months’ time I am back at the job centre, I wont have a job; this is short term.”
The real success story is that a personality and Rugby League legend like Sean Long has stayed on in the sport and his feeding his wealth of experience back into the game. For him it’s in the form of a coach, for other players it might be conditioning, media, marketing or whatever other corner of the game they enjoy.  What’s important is that the people who know the game the most are in positions to continually help Rugby League be everything it can be.
I thought I would finish with Sean’s opinion of England’s chances in the World Cup.
“I think the England set up now is a lot better. We were just thrown together when I played in 2006 after the Grand Final (in the Tri-Nations Down Under). That’s one of the points I get at in my book – they wanted to take us canoeing or dragon boating, and I said ‘look, we need to get on the field, I don’t know how half of these guys play or train’, so they canned the canoeing. Now you England guys have been together for a long time and have been building for this World Cup, will know how each other plays and you know each other on and off the field.
“I think England have a much better chance and the players in the NRL are killing it. George Burgess, Sam, James Graham is going well, and I watched Jack Reed who is playing well too. This could be England’s year to go on and win it.
“But not if you get Samoa in the semi-final because I am coaching Samoa, ha!  Matt Parish has the head job and I am assisting. I am giving him a lift with the Samoan job, and, it will be good for experience again.
“England are also much better prepared in the outside backs and the halves than we were back then, we have got quite a few choices at halfback and you have Sam Tomkins out the back. If we are going to do it then this is the year to do it.”

Reading matters

As part of the Reading Agency’s “Six Book Challenge” – in conjunction with England Rugby League – I’ve been asking the interviewees what their last read was.
The Six Book Challenge is aimed at getting adults back into reading by making the time to read just six books, pieces of online literature or magazine articles.
Clearly the last book I read was Sean Long’s autobiography and I have just started Derren Brown’s “Tricks of the Mind” along with my regular biblical food.
Sean said: “I read Anthony Kiedis’ book – he is the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it’s a good read, he’s out there. I’m into my music and I read Slash’s autobiography too, I like people who are a bit borderline.”